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Newton North Tiger’s Loft cuts lunch service to students

By Deirdre Fernandes
Globe Staff / March 4, 2012
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Newton North High School’s culinary arts students are getting a taste of the competitive and complicated world of running a restaurant.

The long-established, student-run Tiger’s Loft Bistro was forced in late January to stop serving soups, sandwiches, and lunches to its most loyal customers: other students.

While Tiger’s Loft can still serve faculty, and is preparing to open up to the public soon, administrators have told students that the federal school lunch program’s rules and the city’s new contract with its vendor prohibit the restaurant from feeding other students during lunch.

The limits on Tiger’s Loft have distressed much of the Newton North student body, and have been a topic of discussion in classes and around the halls, according to Jay Feinstein, an editor of the school’s online student newspaper, the Newtonite, which has covered the fate of the bistro in recent weeks.

Many students raved about the food, and said they preferred it to the cafeteria’s selections.

“It used to be a great place that a lot of people used to hang out at,’’ Feinstein said.

Mike Safran, a junior in the school’s culinary arts program who helps out at the Tiger’s Loft, said it has been disheartening to see the usually bustling restaurant empty in recent weeks.

“It’s really hard to see,’’ said Safran, who was one of four students from the program to meet with school district and Newton North administrators in an effort to keep Tiger’s Loft open to students. “We like making the food, and we’d like to have our friends try our food.’’

When interviewed last week, Newton school and legal officials said they were primarily concerned about running afoul of the federal regulations, which govern everything from the nutritional value of cafeteria food to the financial reimbursements doled out to schools participating in its lunch program.

Newton’s associate city solicitor, Ouida Young, said in her reading of the federal guideline, it prevents competition from other food programs during lunch times.

But the federal regulations only address food served in the school cafeteria, not in a separate restaurant, according to John Magnarelli, regional director for special nutrition programs at the US Department of Agriculture.

“Our regulations say, if you have a competitive food operation, like a student restaurant, that’s OK,’’ Magnarelli said in an interview Thursday. “From our point of view, it’s allowable. If the Newton high school administrators decided that they didn’t want the school restaurant to serve in competition with the school cafeteria, that’s OK . . . We’ll allow them to have a stricter policy.’’

The Tiger’s Loft Bistro had served students for years before its potential conflict with federal guidelines became an issue last year.

That’s when the city contracted out its cafeteria services to Whitsons Culinary Group. A few months later, the company informed school administrators of the clause covering competitive food services, said Mike Cronin, the district’s chief of operations.

And a consultant the city hired to review Whitsons’ first year of performance agreed, Cronin said.

“The law is the law,’’ he said. “Whitsons just pointed it out to us.’’

Whitsons’ contract with Newton includes certain financial assumptions about how many meals it would be serving in the schools, Young said. The school district’s contract with Whitsons was the secondary reason to limit Tiger’s Loft food service to students, she said.

A spokesman for Whitsons could not be reached for comment last week.

Young said she is encouraged by Magnarelli’s interpretation, but added, “I don’t know if Whitsons would agree with it.’’

Safran questioned how much competition Tiger’s Loft posed to Whitsons. The restaurant, which is used to train the culinary arts students in everything from buying food to preparing menus, served about 30 students a day, he said.

Safran and other students spent two weeks researching the school lunch program, and the city’s contract with Whitsons in an effort to convince administrators that Tiger’s Loft should remain unchanged. But it didn’t seem to work, Safran said.

District administrators have said they will ask the city’s legal department to look more closely into the federal law, and whether Tiger’s Loft can serve students.

In the meantime, Diana Robbins, Newton North’s career and technical education director, said she is encouraging students to look at the possibilities. In essence, to take the lemons and make lemon cake.

When the new Newton North was built, Tiger’s Loft was placed on the first floor near the entrance, in the hopes of making it a more public facility, Robbins said. Now, school officials are looking at getting all the paperwork and licenses to open the restaurant to the public, she said.

The restaurant has always been there as a teaching tool, and this experience has taught students some practical lessons, even about competition, Robbins said.

“They’re very disappointed. But they’re slowly understanding that there’s life beyond this.’’

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com.

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